James Sunderland welcomes the Armed Forces Covenant statutory guidance for local councils in particular, but questions how councils will be held to account if they do not meet their obligations.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), the new shadow Minister, and I wish her well in her new role. I also empathise with much of what she said this afternoon, but of course the Government position is quite different, and I will explain why.
As Chair of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, I am probably more familiar with this Bill than most, and it is a good Bill. As before, with the armed forces covenant, I welcome the fact that it pays due regard to the placeholder, recognises rightful outcomes, and accurately reflects the unique sacrifices and obligations on HM forces, and that it places a legal obligation on the delivery of health, accommodation and local support from councils. It provides examples of good practice and pragmatic guidelines on how this is to be provided.
I note, with the Minister in his place, that prescriptive performance targets are still absent from the statutory guidance, but it may just be impossible to apply any meaningful metrics and tools to this area. I just do not believe that councils are in any doubt about what is expected of them after 10 years, but it may be that guidance is still needed on how they will be held to account if they do not meet their obligations, so I await that with interest.
I want to talk to just a handful of the amendments, if I may. New clause 1, as mentioned, is on the duty of care. It would require the Secretary of State to
“establish a duty of care standard in relation to legal, pastoral and mental health support provided to service personnel involved in investigations or litigation arising from overseas operations”.
While this duty of care is one of the most important aspects of the Bill, and of the armed forces of course, applying a one-size-fits-all approach could lead to difficulties in the future. Tailored welfare and mental support for those who have served is already very effective and is already offered to all personnel.
New clause 2, on dismissal for sexuality, requires the Government to conduct a comprehensive review of the number of people who are dismissed or forced to resign from the armed forces because of their sexuality or perceived sexuality, and to make recommendations on appropriate forms of compensation. As before, while there is no validation of this practice and the Government do see it as an absolute wrong, the Government have resisted this clause at this point in time, as indeed they did in Committee, owing to its complicating the MOD’s efforts to address at pace this injustice. However, for the record, this does need to be done in due course, and I believe that the Government will do it.
New clause 3, on a representative armed forces body, would create a representative body for the armed forces, akin to the Police Federation, that would represent their members in matters such as welfare, pay and efficiency. But, once again, the Government have not been persuaded that there is a requirement or a groundswell of support for a federation along the lines that have been suggested. The interests of armed forces personnel, of which I was one, are already ably represented through a range of mechanisms, not least the chain of command. Furthermore, the Service Complaints Ombudsman provides independent and impartial scrutiny of all service complaints.
I would talk to some more amendments, but actually my opinion of all of them is the same as it is of the new clauses: while they are laudable on their own, there are good reasons why the Government are resisting every one—reasons outlined at length in Committee, and indeed during the Select Committee stage. In the interests of time, let me just say that this Bill has been subject to repeated scrutiny at various stages. It is a good Bill, it remains fit for purpose in terms of what can be achieved now, and I will be voting it through tonight.